Friday, 5 June 2009
For a new government not to lose a senior Cabinet member within the first eighteen months is not being ‘remarkably free of accident-prone moments’ as the media seemed to be suggesting yesterday – unless, of course, you compare it to the hapless start of the Howard government which lost five Ministers in the same time. Howard had come in promising a new direction after thirteen years of Labor but without any program to do so. So his Ministers were going to act in a different way instead, which of course they didn’t. Howard was eventually to give up even his code of conduct and flounder along against an exhausted Labor party until 9/11 came along. This government is better prepared for the vacuum and so has generally avoided the same mistakes.
Yet what is striking about Fitzgibbon’s resignation is the triviality of the reason for his departure (what was it again?) against the importance of his position. Howard’s departing Ministers generally held relatively unimportant portfolios compared to the vital role of Defence. Certainly it would be unthinkable in the past for such a key Minister, overseeing the country’s national security, to be chucked out on such a flimsy pretext. In the good old days, Ministers of such seniority usually only resigned as a way of knifing their respective PMs.
Howard only began to pull his government together when he could present a national security problem for it to address. That clear threat has now gone and Fitzgibbon has struggled to force the Defence establishment to adapt. It could be argued that the loss of a Defence Minister could only be possible when such a clear national security threat is no longer a part of the political scene but also when the Australian military needs to be realigned to that fact. Rudd’s anti-political code of conduct may make it more in tune with the current weakness of the political class but the easy loss of this Minster shows it is still there and if anything is worse than before.
Yet there is a more unsettling aspect to what happened yesterday. It was not the reasons for the resignation but what followed after it. As usual the coalition missed it, thinking perhaps we were about to see a repeat of the sleaze allegations currently destroying the British political class, by suggesting that Rudd was, er, in hock to a used car salesman.
Someone should tell the government that Fitzgibbon’s continuing public talk of a conspiracy against him in the Defence Ministry is not a good look. Not because it is blaming staff like Howard’s Ministers used to blame theirs for incompetence. Rather it looks as though the government is losing control of a vital function of the state. One could go back to the damage done by Whitlam’s Attorney General raiding his own ASIO department in 1973, or more recently, the Howard government’s loss of control over the judiciary in the Haneef affair, which signalled the terminal stage of that government, to know that drift is one thing, but loss of control over the state apparatus is something else.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 5 June 2009.Filed under The Australian state